The Places of Sun Worship in Ancient Egypt

Ancient tombs hold images of Osiris and Isis, the sun god and his wife.
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The sun god Re, or Ra, was the predominant deity in ancient Egypt. The young sun god begins his dawn voyage in his boat over the ocean of heaven, is full-grown by the moment of the high-noon sun and sets in the west as an old man, the god Atum. By the time of the fifth dynasty, pharaohs were considered to be the divine, direct descendants of the sun god and they built cities and temples to emphasize their divinity.

1 Monotheism and Akehtaten

Egyptians were polytheistic, with Ra holding pride of place as the chief deity. But Amenhotep, royal consort of the legendary Nefertiti, belonged to a cult that believed the sun god created himself and then brought about the rest of creation and the other gods. Amenhotep embraced monotheism, smashed the idols of the other gods and regarded himself as a distinctive son of Ra, also known as Aten, the "Great Disc" of illumination. The pharaoh built a new capital, a city called Akhetaten, and changed his name to Akhenaten in honor of Ra. When he died, Tutankhamen, his successor, was faced with a catastrophic economic collapse and severe unrest, partly attributable to the suppressed traditional religion. King Tut restored the rest of the gods to their temples and to active worship and Akhetaten was abandoned, eventually buried under the desert sand.

2 Heliopolis

The city named for the greatest of the sun gods, Ra and Osiris, is buried under modern Cairo. Heliopolis was the seat of sun god worship and housed the priests, widely respected for their knowledge of astronomy and science. The temple of Ra survived over many dynasties and was preserved during the temple destruction of Akhenaten's reign precisely because it was dedicated to the blazing god of the midday sun. Osiris was the personification of the sun god who disappeared beyond the western hills each evening to judge the souls of the dead in the underworld. In 2006, "National Geographic" announced that a major limestone temple built by Ramses II to honor the sun god was discovered under an outdoor market in a Cairo suburb.

3 Thinis-Abydos

Osiris had his own center of worship in the city of Thinis on the Nile's west bank, between Thebes and Memphis. The actual city is cited in documents and historians believe that it is real, not mythical, although it has never been discovered. A city adjacent to Thinis, Abydos, is the site of a succession of great Osiris temples with murals depicting a popular object of Osiris veneration, the sacred bull. The quality of endurance was attributed to both the bull and Osiris, who never abandoned his home or his people. Those people believed that the soul of Osiris lived in the bull and that the god and the animal were the same. They also believed that Osiris linked the upper and lower worlds, the lands of the living and the dead. Abydos and the elusive Thinis were adjacent to an early pharaonic necropolis, chosen because of its proximity to the sun-god's city. Thinis was considered to exist both in heaven and on earth.

4 Memphis

Some of the minor sun gods had their own centers of worship. Ptah represented the gift of life in the form of the sun and was revered in the city of Memphis, as was the god of the summer rays of the sun, Mandoo, and the sun-goddess of rays known as Sekhet or Pasht, the lioness as fierce as the sun. Sekhet is always depicted with the head of a lioness. Isis, the wife of Osiris was also worshiped in Memphis. Inscriptions praising her, probably copied form stelae in front of a temple in Memphis, have been discovered in other areas of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean where Isis cults flourished.

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .